Yet that is exactly what happened after Karen and a group of five like-minded neighbors spoke out against annexation. They had moved to Parker North largely because it was not part of the town of Parker and was free of many of the costs and petty annoyances of small town governance. So when she and her neighbors Norm Feck, Tom Sorg, Louise Schiller, and Wes and Becky Cornwell heard about the annexation plan, they did what many Americans in their position would do. They researched the issues, printed up flyers, started an email discussion group for the neighborhood and made lawn signs.
They expected a vigorous debate. What they received instead was a lawsuit, filed by a neighbor—the chief proponent of annexation—claiming that they violated Colorado’s campaign finance laws and should be fined, muzzled or both.
Under Colorado law, Karen and her neighbors were not simply a group of grassroots activists speaking out on an important local issue. They were an “issue committee” that had spent more than $200 opposing a ballot issue. As such, they were required to register with the State, appoint a treasurer, open a separate bank account for all “campaign finances,” and report all “contributions” and “expenditures” to the State, which will list on a website the identities, addresses and often employers of anyone who contributed money to their efforts. Worse still, the law allows any private person to sue alleged violators. The predictable result, as Karen and her neighbors discovered, is to give political adversaries a weapon to use against those with whom they disagree.
Karen and her neighbors thought that in America, all you needed to talk about politics was an opinion. They were shocked to find that modern campaign finance laws make it necessary to hire accountants and lawyers as well. Faced with a lawsuit, the group hired a lawyer to defend them. To avoid the prospect of further fines, they registered as an issue committee and began filling out forms and tracking “expenditures.” Fortunately, they also discovered the Institute for Justice.
On September 19, 2006, IJ filed Sampson v. Dennis in federal district court in Denver. The suit argues that the laws under which Karen and her neighbors were sued violate the First Amendment by allowing politically motivated individuals to file lawsuits against their opponents and by threatening to stifle political speech with red tape and regulations. The case demonstrates that campaign finance laws affect everyone. These laws—which are essentially political speech codes—threaten to make talking about politics about as palatable as filing an income tax return.
If IJ has anything to say on the subject, and we do, that will change.
Steve Simpson is an IJ senior attorney.